Unraveling the Mysteries of the U.S. Seal

Look at the back of a $1 bill and you'll see the two sides of the Great Seal of the United States. In one circle, an unfinished pyramid, topped with an eye in a floating triangle. in the other, a bald eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and 13 arrows in the other. What does it all mean? Melissa Block talks with Priscilla Linn, senior curator of the State Department's U.S. Diplomacy Center.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Okay. If you still have one to your name, take a $1 bill and flip it over to the side without George Washington, and there, you'll see the two sides of the Great Seal of the United States. On the left, an unfinished pyramid topped with an eye in a floating triangle. And on the right, a bald eagle clutching an olive branch in one talon and 13 arrows in the other. What does it all mean?

(Soundbite of movie "National Treasure")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER (Actor): (As John Adams Gates) The free masons among our Founding Fathers left us clues like these. The unfinished pyramid, the all-seeing eye, symbols of the Knights Templar, guardians of the treasure.

BLOCK: Yeah, there are symbols aplenty on the back of this dollar bill, but they're not nearly as mysterious as movies like "National Treasure" would have us believe.

Ms. PRISCILLA LINN (Senior Curator, State Department's U.S. Diplomacy Center): It's so easy to not really find out the real story. And the real story is so wonderful.

BLOCK: That's Priscilla Linn. She has put together an exhibit on the history of the Great Seal. It's at the State Department in Washington, D.C., just a few feet away from the Great Seal itself.

That seal is about the size of a coaster and it's still very much on active duty. It validates treaties, the papers of ambassadors and things like that. It's kept in a secured glass room in a mahogany cabinet with what can only be described as a large silver barbell sticking out of the top. Open cabinet and insert fancy document, turn barbell, the Great Seal presses on the paper and you've got an officially sealed document.

How many times a year does somebody walk in that little door, swing that barbell and use the official Great Seal of the United States?

Ms. LINN: Do you want to guess?

BLOCK: Fifty.

Ms. LINN: Try 2,000.

BLOCK: Two thousand times a year?

Ms. LINN: Two thousand. In a year when the administration changes, it's 3,000.

BLOCK: What happens if you mess up trying to do the seal. Do you get to do it over?

Ms. LINN: I think - yeah, you get a do over. Yeah, I think so.

BLOCK: We owe the Great Seal to our Founding Fathers who was commissioned on July 4, 1776. But a final design wasn't approved for six more years. Yeah, Washington moved slowly back then, too. But after all, there was a war going on.

Over those years, artists tinkered with the design, a frontiersman was in then out. Then a helmeted warrior and a lovely maiden, they didn't make the cut either. In the end, they settled on the eagle. The final design was from William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer schooled in heraldry.

Ms, LINN: So he came up with the wings going up instead of down - which means that the wings are protecting the people of the United States, retained the olive branch and the arrows, and of course the glory up above with the stars. And the idea of E Pluribus Unum - from many, one.

BLOCK: So this was the first seal, 1782. Right?

Ms. LINN: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: And this eagle, I have to say, looks mangy, scrawny - does not look like a great symbol of his country being born. He's having a hard time.

Ms. LINN: No. And he's got - he's not even the right eagle. Because if you look carefully, I think he's got a crest on his head, and bald eagles don't have crests. But it was a start.

BLOCK: There's so many misconceptions about the seal - what the symbols mean. I mean, it's rich with iconography. Why don't you set us there, what are some of the myths?

Ms. LINN: Well, there are all kinds of myths. The head of the eagle changes, you know, with different times of history. It doesn't ever turn. The eagle always faces the olive branch. I think the area that people get most confused about is the eye and the pyramid. People are afraid of pyramids. Pyramids have sort of mystical connotations. But indeed, our Founding Fathers were very knowledgeable men and, apparently, a study of Egypt was very, very popular at that time.

BLOCK: Did they explain why they wanted a pyramid on the seal?

Ms. LINN: I think because it's such a strong symbol of duration.

BLOCK: And, of course, this pyramid is unfinished.

Ms. LINN: Right. Because building a nation is a work in progress.

BLOCK: There's a lot of talk about the influence of the masons in these symbols.

Ms. LINN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. First of all, the masons do have an eye and a triangle, but it's a different concept. It's more of the eye of a god who's watchful and it's not exactly the same as God has favored us. God has, you know, helped us build our nation.

They say that the founding members of the people who built the seal, designed the seal - the only person who was known to be a mason was Benjamin Franklin. And none of the things that he proposed were translated into the design at all.

BLOCK: People also read a lot into this Latin phrase below the pyramid - Novus Ordo Seclorum.

Ms. LINN: Yeah. It's officially translated as a new order of the ages. At the time, it was very much - we were establishing a democracy, we're establishing a republic. This is an experiment. I think they were very, very excited and proud of what they were doing. And so some people have twisted it into things like this means taking over the world.

BLOCK: The new world order.

Ms. LINN: New world order, yeah, or something like that. I mean, when you think about it, at that time, I don't how these guys could've even remotely thought about taking over the world when they were barely being able to take over their own country.

BLOCK: Well, Priscilla Linn, thanks for talking to us about the Great Seal of the United States.

Ms. LINN: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: Priscilla Linn is the curator with the U.S. Diplomacy Center at the State Department.

By the way, one of those ideas from Ben Franklin that was rejected was to have an image from Exodus - the parting of the Red Sea - and the words: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.

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